Emergency medical sites being prepared in Austin, Travis County in case hospitals hit capacity


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Emergency backup medical facilities are being prepared in Austin and Travis County in case hospitals are overwhelmed by an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Projections have indicated that the number of hospitalizations and deaths related to the coronavirus in Central Texas will continue to increase.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Dr. Mark Escott, Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority, explained that in the area there are currently 554 confirmed cases of COVID-19, seven deaths, 77 hospitalizations, and 28 people on ventilators.

In response to numbers and projections, officials have set up Alternative Care Sites that will address patient care needs if hospitals reach capacity.

There are about 4,300 available hospital beds in Austin and Travis County on an average day, with hospitals currently operating at about 50% capacity.

Under the plan, once hospitals have run out of beds, patients will be transferred to Alternative Care Sites where they will receive hospital-level care.

These sites will be buildings previously purposed for patient care, such as former clinics or medical facilities.

Currently, public health officials and Travis County’s emergency operations center are working to identify the alternative sites. The plan they’re developing is split up into a couple of phases.           

First, if and when hospitals reach capacity, the county would open up Type II Alternative Care Sites. Those would be smaller facilities, like outpatient surgical centers. They would house people who aren’t critically ill. The county has found six of these sites so far and is searching for more.

“They’re already geared towards health care,” Dr. Escott said. “They have infrastructure, they have power, electricity, the room facilities are set up to house patients. They have beds and oxygen and those sorts of things. So, it’s much easier to turn those on than it will be to turn on a large facility, but having said that, we do have plans for those large facilities, as well, if we need them.”

Should the Type II sites not be enough, then Type I Alternative Care Sites would open. Type I sites would be similar to combat surgical hospitals or large wards. The county has identified one of those types of sites so far, but isn’t saying where it is, yet. 

Escott says volunteer doctors and nurses who usually work at private practices would staff these sites, along with paramedics and EMTs.

“We hope that this surge plan is not necessary, but we are preparing for the worst,” said Dr. Mark Escott, Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority.

“We must continue to stay home and practice physical distancing. The future of our healthcare system is up to our daily individual behavior, and it is going to take all of us to fight this virus.”

Officials are in the process of identifying specific sites for both types of alternative care site. During the conference, officials said the sites will be identified once they’ve been secured.

Isolation Facilities and Protective Lodging Facilities, for patients who need to quarantine from the public but do not need medical care, are also being established.

During the Wednesday conference, Adler explained that while it’s projected that “Pearl Harbor Week” — what’s expected to be the peak week for infections — is incoming for hotspots like New York City, Austin has not yet neared it’s peak.

Mayor Adler said that Austin should expect its COVID-19 peak to hit in late April and into May. But he added that it could even be near June.

He said, “Looking at the numbers, we’re seeing that what we did in the community two weeks ago” is working to reduce spread, but that “we can do better and we need to do better.”

However, the peak could be pushed back and lessened if more people halt non-essential activities, the mayor and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt explained.

Eckhardt said Wednesday that Travis County has seen about a 64% reduction in non-essential activities thus far. She did not say how the county calculated that percentage. 

According to modeling by the University of Texas, at that rate, the county would expect to need more hospital beds than can currently be accommodated.

The modeling shows that the more that non-essential activities decrease, the later the peak will be, with fewer people needing to be hospitalized, because more treatment options along with more protective equipment will be available.

“We feel confident that we will be prepared, but we can all do our part by reducing our non-essential activities, so that we have more time to get that kind of equipment in the appropriate hands,” Eckhardt said.

University of Texas projections say the county would need to cut down non-essential activities by at least 80% in order to stay within capacity at hospitals, and not need back-up facilities.

“I know this is hard,” the Mayor said. “As we do this physical separation — people are locked up at home. We’re not seeing our friends… Make sure you’re calling people who are alone. Make sure you’re doing more than just texting.”

Mayor Adler says that by working together to continue taking precautions, Austinites will get through this time.

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